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How to be a Literary Genius - Part 2

If you wish to be a literary genius, it helps to come of humble parentage. It is also an advantage to be working in a new artistic form in an age of imperial expansion, during the reign of a long-lived female monarch. That, at least, is the pattern set by Shakespeare and Dickens – and their genius is beyond dispute or compare.

So what difference does having a long-reigning monarch make? Well, for one thing an extended reign implies stability. People will make art as long as there are people, but the kind of art they choose to make will depend on the circumstances of their time. Elizabeth I’s reign followed centuries of turbulence and the years after the dissolution of the monasteries had seen terrible religious hostilities.

Her sovereignty must have seemed comparatively tranquil, despite plots, rebellions, foreign wars and threats of invasion. After centuries of warfare against the French, Victoria’s rule also saw a long period of relative peace with only one major conflict (Crimean War, 1853-56) which to everyone’s surprise was not against France but Russia.

The comparative stability of Tudor England allowed theatre to become one of the principal forms of public entertainment, along with sword fights, bear baiting and public executions. Happy days. Relatively full employment, rising wages and freedom from wars, famine and disease all helped Shakespeare develop his art and swell his earnings – though when 30,000 people died of the plague in London in the early 1600s, The Globe was temporarily closed with all other theatres.

Shakespeare was fortunate in the timing of his birth; before the foundation of the first modern playhouse, The Theatre, in 1576, actors had toured the country performing in courtyards. Had he been born earlier, there would have been no theatres in which to enact his plays. Had he been born a few years later, there would have been no theatres at all. When the Puritans seized power only a few years after his death, they were banned – along with Christmas and anything else vaguely enjoyable.

If Shakespeare’s art was favoured by socio-economic conditions, Dickens was equally advantaged. Rising levels of literacy meant greater numbers of people could read novels, growth of the middle class meant more people had leisure to read, while private lending libraries (and from 1850 onwards, the spread of public libraries) reduced the cost of books to the reading public. Even railway travel contributed to the rise of the novel – long journeys required distraction and the first WH Smith stores were sited at stations selling books to passengers. Railways featured frequently in his stories, and while mighty locomotives helped distribute his work round Britain, steamships carried it around the world. Almost all his novels were published in monthly instalments and huge crowds waited on the quay in New York to learn what had happened to Little Nell (she died, as they really should have guessed she would).

The times Shakespeare and Dickens lived helped shape their art; in a largely illiterate society, the theatre was an ideal form of mass entertainment while in a more individualistic age of wide literacy, the novel became pre-eminent. Yet if the worlds the authors shared were characterized by their stability, they were also, paradoxically, periods of intense social upheaval – for although they might have been stable, they were not static. By the time of Shakespeare’s birth, feudal society was well in decline. Early capitalist enterprise had begun and social boundaries were breaking down, precisely giving chances to ambitious men of talent from the provinces like him.

The same was true of Dickens’ era. Huge populations moved from the countryside into constantly growing cities like Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Glasgow, all with their terrible poverty, sweated labour and slums. Vast fortunes were made and lost, dynasties created and smashed. Such times can be as full of distress and confusion as they are exhilarating. At times of rapid change we need art more than ever. And Dickens and Shakespeare both made the most of this.

On top of everything else, the reigns of Elizabeth I and Victoria were characterized by imperial expansion. Elizabeth’s rule saw the beginnings of the empire in India with patents granted to the East India Co, the first circumnavigation of the globe by Drake, early colonization of the Americas and, more darkly, the start of the slave trade. Victoria’s reign saw further massive expansion of industry, trade and imperial possessions and by the end of her long life Britain’s empire was the largest the world has seen.

Although the expansion in these periods is touched on by both writers, notably Shakespeare in The Tempest, it is not imperialism as such that seems significant. Rather, it is as if the energy and confidence that drove the exploration and expansion were also driving the huge energies of Shakespeare, Dickens and their fellow writers. And these were numerous. Shakespeare’s contemporaries counted Marlowe, Kyd, Dekker, Middleton, Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher while Dickens’ saw Thackeray, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot, the Bronte sisters, Wilkie Collins, Trollope and many others. In other words, conditions that allowed Shakespeare and Dickens to thrive supported numerous friends and rivals – competition between them further fuelling their energies.

It could be that some of that energy was also driven by the excitement that always comes when working in a new artistic form (note all the ‘isms’ that sprung up after Picasso kick-started modern art in the early 1900s – cubism, fauvism, futurism, vorticism, expressionism, constructivism…). The Tudors didn’t invent theatre, yet up to the 1570s in England there had been little beyond morality and mystery plays. After the creation of the first purpose built playhouses in London, things began to change and the theatrical explosion that followed Marlowe’s early work was extraordinary. He bashed the door down. Others followed him through it, Shakespeare leading the charge.

The same is true for Dickens and his contemporaries. The English novel dates back to the publication of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe in 1719 and later authors such as Jonathan Swift and Henry Fielding established a wide readership. Dickens took from them all. Like Defoe, he was a journalist and had an acute eye for detail; with Swift he shared an intense political engagement and like Fielding he delighted in the picaresque and playful. He helped forge the novel in its ‘heroic age’, becoming in the process one of the most celebrated public figures of his day.

We are in times of rapid change now. We also have a long reigning female monarch. So where is our contemporary Shakespeare or Dickens? What seems to be lacking is the confidence of their eras. Elizabeth II’s reign has seen the dismantling of empire and continued erosion of Britain’s role as a world power. As a nation we lack belief in our institutions and are fearful of the future.

Yet during her sovereignty, there was a brief bubbling of optimism. That was in the 1960s, a happy interlude of amazing innovation and creativity which threw up the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Cream, Pink Floyd and many more. We may not have had Shakespeare or Dickens, but at least we had Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards. They fit the template – children from lower down the social hierarchy but with access to education (three were at grammar school. Richards had to be different and went to a tech, but there became a boy soprano and sang for the queen at Westminster Abbey). They were also working in a new artistic medium, rock and roll.

Their genius was in combination, not individualistic, specialising in the three minute pop song rather than the five Act play or four volume novel. Does their work count as literary genius? Who cares? Let’s just be grateful for Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt Pepper’s and Abbey Road, Let it Bleed, Beggar’s Banquet, Sticky Fingers and the rest. Vivat Regina.


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